Organizing an Academic Conference? Don’t Forget Twitter

I’m speaking at a conference later this year, and one of the organizers — the one tasked with managing social media during the event — asked me for advice. I figured it might make sense to write something more formal, to share not just with her but with other organizers who haven’t yet used Twitter to encourage online discussion between attendees and invite non-attendees to engage with ideas presented in sessions. Here goes.

Twitter is the social media platform of choice for academic conferences. To harness the power of the platform to bring participants and interested non-attendees together, the conference needs a dedicated hashtag. Often, this’ll be an association’s acronym followed by the 2- or 4-digit year of the event. For conferences that are one-off events or aren’t organized by an association, hashtags should be descriptive but brief — and ideally unique to your event. Beyond the Professoriate, the annual online conference I co-produce, uses #BeyondProf; this week, I’ll be at #FutureofHistory, and then the following week at #NeMLA16. Creating a hashtag in advance of an event is the first step. Then, you have to spread the word, encouraging attendees to use it during the conference.

At some conferences, hundreds of participants are online, and at big events such as the MLA, there are hashtags for individual conference sessions, too! The vast majority of conference needn’t get this specific, especially if expect that only a handful of individuals will be using Twitter. You can encourage greater engagement by ensuring access to Wi-Fi throughout the venue(s) and properly publicizing your hashtag in print materials, on your website, and in digital and physical signage at the event itself. Consider adding a Twitter widget to the conference website, so that each mention of your hashtag appears in a live stream. Session chairs can mention Twitter in their opening remarks. This can be an opportunity to set limits on what should be shared online — some conference participants may be wary of having their slides or remarks spread far and wide. (I hope most aren’t, but it’s good to be respectful.) One opportunity often missed is including individual’s Twitter handles on their conference nametags. For example:

Once you’ve got a hashtag and your attendees know about it, you can start using it! Someone on the organizing committee can monitor tweets to answer questions or RT (retweet) comments as relevant. If your conference is related to existing conversations on Twitter, you can alert users who won’t necessarily be at the event that they should look out for your hashtag for tweets of interest to them. In my case, I can let the #altac #postac and #withaPhD communities know about #FutureofHistory, since at least some of that content will be relevant to them. At larger events, users might organize a “tweet-up” — there was one for #twitterstorians at the American Historical Association (#AHA16) convention in January, for example.

At this point, if you’re encouraged tweeting and spread the word about your hashtag, you can expect attendees will be using it. In-person discussions may make their way online, and take on lives of their own. It can be challenging to pay attention to both; don’t stress about it. But, if you’ve got volunteers (or paid participants) who can tweet from individual sessions, that’s great. They can pass on questions or comments that come via Twitter during the discussion portion of each session. If you’re live streaming the conference, so much the better; don’t forget about the people watching at home. I expect the vast majority of academic conferences need not go to such lengths, but it could be that if we build it, they will come.

After your conference, you can archive all or a selection of tweets using a tool such as Storify, which you can then publish in a blog post. This is what I do after #withaPhD chats. (Check out the blog to see what I mean. We keep it simple, but you can do lots of fancy things using Storify.)

Join us at Carleton University in May for #FutureHumanities, the conference that inspired this post! Future of the PhD in Humanities will take place on 17 and 18 May, with a pre-conference day of events on 16 May organized by and for graduate students.

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